We use the word “vulgar” in two senses, one favorable and one less so. Art can be vulgar by having the common touch, the gift of pleasing the largest possible audience. Or it can be vulgar by being common itself, undifferentiated in its banal coarseness. Anybody or anything can win popularity by being merely vulgar; the harder trick to bring off is to be vulgar with distinction, which can make popular art memorable, even historic.
The Wiz, back in 1975, accomplished that harder trick most elegantly. It was vulgar, its score written in an idiom with instant, widespread public appeal, and it was distinctive, putting a stylish spin on all its common gestures, yet never making them seem arty. That last is the trickiest part of all: In popular art, distinction has to come from within the vulgarity, from the desire to make it beautiful and perfect in its vulgar way.
That desire is an expression of love; the lack of love is what separates common vulgarity from the distinctive kind. The former is simply shoved at you, garishly and loudly. Hence the difference between The Wiz, circa 1975, and The Wiz as revived now in City Center’s Encores! series. Much of what gave the original its distinction is latent here, waiting to be discovered, but those in charge haven’t given much time or care to discovering it. Charlie Smalls’s songs still sound good, but are mostly knocked at you fortissimo, with little joy or personal feeling. When somebody does connect with a song, as the Tinman (Joshua Henry) does with “If I Could Feel,” it’s as though you’ve taken flight into a different show—the one Smalls and book writer William F. Brown initially envisioned, intending to inject, into a work with wide common appeal, a touch of class.
Much of that touch, in 1975, came from the show’s design: Tom John’s sets and original director Geoffrey Holder’s costumes built a jovial visual conspiracy, in which L. Frank Baum’s illustrator, W.W. Denslow, seemed to shake hands with the Harlem Renaissance painter Romare Bearden, making their updated Oz bold and gaudy in a visually witty way. The new designs, by David Korins (sets) and Paul Tazewell (costumes), seem by comparison only a garish muddle of colors; Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography never even seems entirely sure which way the Yellow Brick Road is leading at any given moment.
The revival’s director, Thomas Kail, who, with Blankenbuehler, did some fairly classy detail work on In the Heights, here seems to be marking time perfunctorily. The plot wends its familiar way: Dorothy’s house, dumped by a tornado in Oz, kills one wicked witch; to get home to Kansas, and to get her newly acquired trio of eccentric companions what they want, she finds she must kill a second. One of The Wiz‘s oddities as a work is that Dorothy never does get home; instead, she winds up in a spotlight singing about it: Entertainment, not narrative closure, is the impulse behind Smalls and Brown’s version of the tale; its (African-American) angle is meant to inject the familiar theme with a new, playful zest.
One has to know, of course, how to play. The original took a sage step by matching its new-for-Broadway pop sound with mostly older, seasoned theater performers—actors and song-and-dance vaudevillians, not pop music figures. They came to it bearing stage personalities strongly etched by prior experience, and took up its songs as acting challenges. I was startled, thinking back, at how many of them had left a strong impression on me in their roles: Hinton Battle, Clarice Taylor, Tiger Haynes, Mabel King, Ted Ross, and the invaluable Andre de Shields. Even in 1975, this was a cast of exceptional quality in its combination of musical and acting skills.
The new cast—sleek, youthful, and vibrant in its vocal power—seems sparsely aware that such matters as acting or personal feeling in a song can exist. Only LaChanze, an experienced theater hand doubling as Aunt Em and Glinda, turns her vocal display pieces into acting triumphs. The others—Ashanti as Dorothy, Orlando Jones as the Wiz, Tichina Arnold as Evillene, Christopher White as Scarecrow, and James Monroe Iglehart as Lion—don’t come off as bad but as novices, making a hopeful beginning in a field where they’ve barely started to learn how much more will be demanded of them than vocal calisthenics and forceful line readings. There’s no pain in watching them, merely the blandness that comes with lack of seasoning. I wouldn’t be surprised, or displeased, to see all of them again. Nor would I mind a newly imagined, richer remounting of The Wiz. This one isn’t it, that’s all.
I don’t mind, similarly, Dan Sullivan’s Central Park production of Twelfth Night. Here, the cast is all skilled hands with a high degree of stage charm; Sullivan’s staging is expectably brisk and accurate. The event is literally as pretty as a picture: John Lee Beatty’s setting locates Illyria on the greensward of an 18th-century English country estate; Jane Greenwood’s costumes turn the characters into figures from the era’s painters. The inattentive may think they’re watching a revival of Sheridan’s Rivals.
Such inattentiveness is only possible because of the production’s curious blandness; little of it feels fully imagined. Some of the shared moments between Audra McDonald’s Olivia and Anne Hathaway’s Viola unlock the play’s delicacy of feeling; Raul Esparza’s impetuous Orsino supplies a charge of individuality otherwise absent. The delightful period-meets-pop score, played live by a group called Hem, supplies constant refreshment, and David Pittu (Feste) isn’t the only first-rate singer onstage ready to chime in vocally. But these delights all have to fight their way past a prevailing monotony of tempo, and of spirit. As at The Wiz, the show reminds you how magical a popular entertainment can be, and how much skill and effort artists need to keep that magic alive.